December 31, 2003
Leaving A Legacy
There are many kinds of legacies. The legacy of property, of children, of ideas, of philosophies. A legacy is immortality achieved, in some form or another.
One year ago, I began to create my own legacy, in the form of my travels and my columns. I didn't consciously think, "I am going to leave a legacy." My motivation was much more immediate and much more superficial.
First, to improve my writing skills - by forcing myself to writing regularly and on deadline. Second, to keep in touch with my friends and family - in what I hoped was an entertaining and informative way. Third, to know that when my peregrination was over, my stories would remain as a personal roadmap and reminder of my travel experiences, ideas and state of mind - in what will certainly prove to be one of the most exciting and uncertain period of my life.
I've always been a writer - a private writer. I was the girl scribbling in journals about the injustice of the high school caste system, about broken hearts and breaking hearts, and about holidays and vacations full of sunset-inspired epiphanies.
But, suddenly I was 28, about to embark on an extended journey with an uncertain conclusion. While I was certain my past career endeavors were not my life's ambition, I was nonetheless at a loss for what my life's ambition COULD be. I had ideas, sure - hopes, dreams, and desires. But, nothing concrete, nothing tangible, no building blocks. I needed a goal. Even if it turned out to be the wrong one.
Those who know me well will not be surprised at my admitting that with very few exceptions, I do not run headlong into the unknown. I check the road for obstacles, take along a map, and prepare myself for the journey. Just as this trip of mine was not undertaken lightly or spontaneously, my first serious foray into writing wasn't either.
It was the only New Years' resolution I made for 2003 - a travel column per week, every week. To be quite honest, I wasn't sure I would be able to do it. It wasn't for a lack of ideas - I always have many more than I need. But, there is a huge chasm between a good idea and the ability to transform that thought into a readable travel column - as I found again and again, week after week. Sometimes I succeeded in my attempts - sometimes I failed. But what matters most, at least to me, was that I did it. And now, just a day before 2003 becomes part of the archives of history, I realize that this resolution is the only one I've ever successfully achieved.
While technical and geographical difficulties made me miss my deadline on a handful of occasions, 99% of my columns have come in on time and on deadline - without an editor or any kind of a weekly "schedule." I consider this a noteworthy accomplishment considering I have been living a life where the only distinguishing characteristic of the weekends vs the weekdays is banking hours and traffic patterns. My Tuesday deadline - more than reminding me of the day of the week - helped keep me grounded.
For many people, the days before New Years are full of memories. Regrets for the year past, and excitement for the year to come. A mini "I saw my life flashing before my eyes" moment - in which one reviews the highs and lows of the past 12 months. They are traditionally a time of resolutions, and in sticking with tradition I shall share with you mine 2004 resolution. As with last year, there is only one. Why mess with success? ;)
I call my trip my own personal version of "graduate school." And, true to its name, every day is an education. Not in a formal classroom, but in the daily life of the planet we all share. I spend each day learning - about the world around me and myself. Sometimes the lessons come easily - like Thai cooking and the price of a tuk tuk in Bangkok. Sometimes they are harder - combating loneliness and isolation while on the road. There are tests I have passed with flying colors and tests I will have to retake - again and again.
As with a traditional graduate programs, like those many of my friends are currently involved in, the end of their schooling will require a final project, a thesis. And, so will mine.
My New Years resolution is my thesis - to become a published writer.
I put no constraints on this goal - not even that of time. While my hope is that somewhere within the 365 days that will make up 2004 I will see my name in print, I would rather it take me longer, if that will ensure pride and satisfaction in my work.
This goal is not about the glory of seeing my name in print (though hey, it would be cool), or about money (because all writer's will tell you that there isn't much). It all comes down to seeing if I have what it takes - the motivation, the desire, and the talent - to call myself not just a writer, but a published one.
To all of you I wish all the best that the New Year can offer: a fresh start, a new beginning, a jumping off point. The ability to reinvent yourself, to let go of the past, to embrace the present and look forward to the future.
And, above all, the opportunity to find your own legacy - whatever that may be.
For all of you still reading, if you come upon any contests, calls for stories, or think you can help me complete my "thesis" don't hold back - write me! I've got my own ideas, but who couldn't benefits from a little help from friends? :)
December 23, 2003
The Evolution Of Christmas
The newspaper showed a picture of a man swimming underwater and feeding sharks in an aquarium in Beijing, China. What struck me most was the man's dress - he was decked out head to toe in a bright red and white Santa suit. The caption said that as China continues to open its doors and embrace westernization, western holidays such as Christmas are more frequently celebrated.
Walking around downtown Bangkok a few days ago, I noticed an abundance of Christmas lights and decorations. All the shopping malls had Christmas carols playing over the loudspeakers, the outside gardens were decorated with Christmas angels, trees and signs - signs that wished people "Happy Holidays" - in English.
Even here, on the island of Ko Pha Ngan, where my brother and I plan to spend our Christmas, a quick walk around town shows shop fronts with Christmas garland, ornaments, New Years hats and noisemakers, and other western tchotchkes that seen unusual and out of place
Is Christianity spreading to Asia? No, it is not. But Christmas is coming, full force.
Every year, on December 25th, American Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. While not the most important of Christian festivals (that is reserved for Easter, the celebration of Christ's resurrection), it is the most colorfully and lavishly celebrated. No longer the simple celebration of a famous birth, the American commercialization of Christmas has taken the holiday to a place early Christians could never have imagined.
If you live in the United States, you can't get away from it. When I was little, the first signs of Christmas showed themselves the day after Thanksgiving - with department stores decorated to the nines and pre-Christmas shopping sales. Christmas carols started playing on the radio, families began to put up outdoor Christmas lights, and vendors selling pine trees took up shop in abandoned lots and outside grocery stores.
As I got older, the arrival of these splashy accents arrived sooner and sooner. The past few years I remember seeing Christmas decorations in stores immediately after Halloween - nearly two months early!
None of these events has anything to do with the birth of Jesus Christ - but then Christmas itself doesn't either. While Buddhist monks tolerate spirits houses and Baci ceremonies in Thailand and Laos, ceremonies and traditions that have nothing to do with Buddhism, most current Christian traditions are really nothing more than the evolutionary absorption of earlier pagan celebrations with some uniquely European and American touches.
No one actually knows when Jesus was born - the Bible lists no date. Some say September, some October, some July. Why then do Christians celebrate his birth on December 25? Why not July 8 or April 15 or September 25?
December 25th is the date of the winter solstice - and Pope Julius I chose that date as the "official" celebration of Jesus Christ's birthday. It is commonly believed that he chose this date to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan celebration of Saturnalia, a mid-winter celebration originating in Rome to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture. The timing of the celebration - around the winter solstice, was a time of excessive drinking, dancing, and a general feeling of festivity. The early Christians were smart - by decreeing that Jesus Christ was born around the time of the winter solstice, they nearly guaranteed popular adoption of the celebration of Christmas. Why not? In addition to Saturnalia, early Romans also celebrated the birth of the Mithra, the god of the sun, as well as Juvenalia, a celebration of children. Adding the birth of a man named Jesus was just icing on the cake - the more the merrier!
it is important to note that Christianity, in the early days, was not the force it is today. It was a struggling neophyte religion, and the first missionaries had a hard time getting the people to let go of their religions and adopt a new one. By incorporating pagan beliefs into the new religion, missionaries made it easier for the people to agree to "convert."
A great example comes from my own religious upbringing. Being of Serbian decent, I was raised in the Serbian Orthodox religion - considered to be one of the two "oldest" Christian religions (along with Catholocism). The Slavs, originally a polytheistic people, were not quite ready to give up on their "gods" - despite what early missionaries told them about Jesus. So, the missionaries, masters of "religious spin," allowed the Serbs to keep their "gods" but they called them "saints."
Today, in the Serbian Orthodox religion, each family has a patron saint whose special day (called "Slava") they celebrate each year. The celebration is a time of food and drink, family and celebration - as well some readings from the Bible. Few realize that "Slava" is really a celebration whose roots have nothing to do with Christianity, Serbian or otherwise.
The decorated Christmas tree, another symbol of modern day Christmas, has its current roots in German culture. However, evergreens were long seen as important symbols of life and immortality - the Vikings, the Celtic Druids, and even the early Romans believed this. All of these cultures used evergreen boughs, brought into homes, to ward off evil spirits.
The list goes on - from the tradition of giving gifts to the creation of Santa Claus and the reindeer - Christmas as a holiday is a fusion of religious and secular beliefs that together has created one of the most celebrated holidays in the world.
Today, the spread of Christmas to Asian nations has little to do with Christianity and more to do with the popularity and pervasiveness of western culture and traditions. The holiday, in Asia as well as in the rest of the world, has become more about having a party, getting gifts, and celebrating with friends and family, than about the birth of a man thought by the Christian world to be the Son of God.
So, is this a bad thing? Is this spreading of a secular Christmas to non-Christian nations damaging to the original intent? Is it ok to sing Christmas carols and give presents when you don't believe in Jesus or even in one god?
It is said that Christmas as we Americans celebrate it today was born out of the Victorian era. That we as a nation took the holiday from its pagan roots of a time of gluttony, indulgence and raucous behavoir and elevated it to focus on the ideas of charity and kindness, peace on earth and goodwill toward man. If that is true, then we also have the power to distance it from its current over exposure of spending sprees and commercialization.
When I was a little girl, I believed in Santa Claus, reindeer and baking Christmas cookies. I believed in Christmas vacation, snowmen and red and green paper chains counting down the days until I would run downstairs and see a decorated pine tree with colorfully wrapped presents underneath. I gave money to the Salvation army, bought toys for kids who didn't have any, and ate Christmas dinner surrounded by my family.
None of these things had anything to do with the birth of Jesus Christ, yet I don't think that partaking in any of these traditions was wrong. Even if I hadn't been taught "the true meaning of Christmas," (in the Christian sense) I still new Christmas was a time of love, a time of giving, and a time of kindness. And if that is the message being passed around the world, then what harm is there in that?
I love Christmas. I love the Bible story of Jesus in the manger, the visit of the three wise men, and the star of Bethlahem guiding the way. I love the carol about the little shepard with nothing to give, getting Christmas cards in the mail, decorating Christmas trees and baking Christmas cookies. And, I don't think there is anything wrong with it, provided there is some understanding of the roots of the tradition.
For more information about the pagan roots of Christmas, check out the historychannel.com, one of the main sources I used for this column. Really facinating stuff!
December 16, 2003
Calling All Spirits
Outside of every Thai home and business is a small "house" - about the size of a bird house or a doll house - colorfully decorated and with offerings of food, drink and flower placed in and around it. Called a "spirit house," its function, as one might imagine, is to house local spirits.
The Thai people believe that spirits inhabit things, including homes. The idea behind the spirit house is to make it so nice, so inviting, that the local spirit will set up residence in the spirit house, leaving the main house for the family.
This practice is taken quite seriously, and the more lavish the house or business, the more lavish the corresponding spirit house - otherwise, why would the spirit want to stay in it? A visit to a modern shopping mall in the city of Chiang Mai proved the point - the spirit house for the shopping mall was the size of a large tree house!
For a long time, I thought the concept of a spirit house was a Buddhist belief, as I also saw the spirit houses outside most temples. However, my ignorance was cleared up while participating in a two-day Buddhist meditation retreat. During a question and answer session with the instructing monk, someone brought up the spirit houses. The monk explained that spirit houses had nothing to do with Buddhism, but were part of the animist beliefs of the Thai people - beliefs that predated the introduction of Theravada Buddhism to the country. The spirit houses we had seen at various temples and wats were put there by lay people - and the Buddhist monks made no objections.
To me, this seemed amazingly open minded.
This fusion of Buddhism and older animist beliefs is not unique to Thailand. The Laos people, also Theravada Buddhists, have their own unique blend of Buddhism and animism. Called "phii" or "spirit" worship, it is the dominant non-Buddhist belief system in the country. Though officially banned by the government, its practice is open and widespread - even as far an being incorporated into "traditional" ceremonies in tourist hotels!
The most interesting and commonly practiced of the ceremonies involving the phii is the Baci [Baa-see] Ceremony. The ceremony is a calling of personal spirits back to an individual. During my time in Laos I was lucky enough to participate in a family ceremony.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving, Pom, one of the two sisters that runs the guesthouse I stayed in during my month in Luang Prabang, asked me if I was available that evening at 6 p.m. She explained that they were having a special ceremony for her mother and invited me to join in. I immediately agreed, excited and curious about the ceremony.
Pom's mother is 77 years old. Though she didn't speak any English, she always smiled at me warmly when we passed during the day and I had a soft spot for her. Earlier in the week, I came home to find the sisters preparing a mass amount of food, and their mother and her elderly friends working on flower and fruit arrangements. Pom told me her mother had been sick, so they were preparing an offering to take to the temple. I determined this ceremony had something to do with her illness.
I arrived just as the ceremony was starting. Inside the main house, a group of old women were sitting mermaid style on the floor, gathered in a circle around a tiered centerpiece standing on a low circular table. The centerpiece, a metal bowl called the "phaakhuan" was piled high with cones of banana leaves and flanked with marigold flowers, white string, candles and incense. Around the base was a selection of food and drink items - rice cakes, sweet pastries, boiled chicken, liquor, and eggs.
Each of the women had one hand touching the table upon which the phakouan sat, the other, in front of their chest in a half-wai (similar to the Christian prayer position of two hands together). They were dressed in traditional clothing - long sarong skirts (sin) with coordinating sashes (paa bien) wrapped around their upper body. I quickly sat down and joined the outer rim of the circle. I noticed that those who could not touch the center table touched the arm of the woman in front of them - and so I followed suit. I later learned it was to capture the flow of good energy and show a state of togetherness.
An elderly man, known as the "maw phawn" or blessing master, sat in the middle of the participants and conducted the ceremony. Usually a village elder, the maw phawn is always a man and usually one who has spent some time as a monk. Lighting the candles, he joined his hands in prayer and addressed the "spirits" in both Pali (an anicent Indian language still used by monks) and Laos, chanting for about ten minutes.
After he finished, all the women bowed their heads, their hands palm together in the traditional prayer position. Then the maw phawn took a few pieces of string from the centerpiece and positioned himself in front of the mother, the guest of honor. Taking her hand in his, he brushed his fingers toward her wrist, then away. He then tied a white string around one wrist and then the other. All the while, he murmured his blessing.
At that point, the women took some string from the centerpiece and one by one, went to the guest of honor and tied one string to each wrist, providing their own blessing. I took two strings and waited my turn, not knowing what I would say, but figuring I would do my own version of a prayer for good health.
I was watching the mother with interest when one of the old women, without a word of English but with a sparkle in her eye, came over to me and began to put the string on each of my wrists, all the while smiling and saying some words I didn't understand. Nith, the other sister, seeing what she was doing, came over and translated.
"She wish you good luck, and long life, and happiness. She wish you will have many children and also come back to Luang Prabang. She wish you safe travels and a quick return," she said, smiling.
When she had finished I smiled and thanked her in Laos. My wrists were almost immediately taken again, by another women, who also chanted as she tied on the strings. Nith later explained to me that while the guest of honor was usually the focus of the ceremony, it was very common for the participants to also tie the strings on other participants - wishing them good luck and a long lif, among other things. As I looked around, I noticed women tieing strings on the sisters, and on each other. Everyone was smiling and laughing - enjoying the ceremoney and the gathering of friends. Even though I didn't understand most of what they were saying, I had a great time, feeling like I was a part of something special.
The next day I had Nith explain to me more about the background of the ceremony, and explain the details of what had happened the night before. She told me that according to ancient Laos beliefs, a body has 32 spirits or "khwan." Throughout a person’s life, the khwan wander, sometimes going very far from the person’s body. Normally, this is fine, but during certain times in a person’s life, especially when they are sick, it is important to call back these spirits - so they may help the person in their current need. Because Nith and Pom's mother had been ill, they had decided to perform the ceremony.
The Baci Ceremony is also performed at other important times in a person's life. The ceremony is performed for a mother and baby after the birth, for a couple as part of their wedding ceremony, and when a family builds a new home. It is also performed during the Laos New Year, before a Laos person undertakes a great journey, or when they are about to enter a new business venture.
Nith explained that the stroking of the palm by the maw phawn meant two things. The first motion, toward the wrist, is done to bring good things to the person. The second, away from the wrist, is to remove all bad things from the person. The strings tied to the wrists bind the spirits to the person.
The strings should remain on a person’s wrists for a minimum three days, to ensure the desired affect. They can then be removed but should be kept in a safe place, somewhere above your head (the most holy part of a Laos person's body). This is to guarantee that the blessings will stay with the recipient throughout their life.
After three days, I removed my strings, but was unsure where to place them. I finally decided to put them in the top portion of my backpack - which, when on my back, rested above my head. It was the best I could do considering my present gypsy lifestyle, and I felt the spirits would find this arrangement suitable.
The timing of the ceremony, for me, was ideal. Just a few days after Thanksgiving, a holiday I was unable to celebrate according to my usual tradition, the ceremony reminded me that while our own traditions are important and should be maintained - they are no less important than the celebrations and traditions of other cultures. And, when in Rome!
Thinking back on Nith's explaination of other times when the ceremony was performed, I quickly focused on the embarking of new journeys. With my Laos visa expiring in a few days, I knew I was about to embark on another adventure. Thinking again about the old woman with the sparkling eyes, I recalled her words:
"She wish you safe travels and a quick return."
I hoped she was right.
December 09, 2003
A Necessary Blood Transfusion
I'm suffering from traveler's anemia - and there is only one cure. Lucky for me, the cure arrives in one week's time. But, I'll get back to that.
Traveling alone, in one word, is freedom. The freedom to go where you want, when you want, with who you want, for whatever reason you want. It is the ability to turn on a dime, to scrap your plans in favor of a passing fancy. It is being the CEO, CTO and President of your own company. It is being in CHARGE.
Traveling alone, in another word, is loneliness. It means regularly having dinner on your own, asking strangers to take your picture at tourist sites and worrying that the bus might leave without you if you run out for a bathroom break. It is giving the stuffed animal you travel with a name.
I value independence as a character trait. I see it as a sign of strength and of self-confidence. The ability to swim upstream,to make up your own mind, to be the master of your fate.
Dependence, on the other hand, has not typically been high on my list of qualities. Whether it be a girlfriend unable to make decisions without her boyfriend's input, a worker who only does what he is told, or a grown up child unable to pull away from parents - dependence brings weakness and insecurity to my mind.
In Stephen Covey's book "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," he explains that the optimum path for an individual's growth is an evolution from Dependence to Independence to Interdependence. Even though I first read his book eight years ago, I am just now beginning to understand what he wrote to be true.
Traveling highlights a person's strengths and weaknesses. It makes one realize what they can do and what they can't do. It makes you aware of your mortality, your needs, your desires - in a way that is magnified and amplified. Every day is different, every day offers challenges, tests, opportunities to shine and opportunities to wallow.
While I have enjoyed, and at times, reveled in my independence, I have slowly begun to realize - to truly understand - that Independence - which I once saw as the Holy Grail, is really just an intermediary step. That Covey was right - that one must reach Independence, but not stop there. That one must continue to the final step - the harder step - of Interdependence.
People need people. This is not my opinion - this is a fact of life. Modern society would simply not function without Interdependence. From the garbage men who provide a thankless but vital service, to the factory worker who made the T-shirt I am wearing right now, to the coffee bean farmer that provided me with my morning beverage of choice.
In one week's time my brother Sasha will fly from Indianapolis, Indiana to Bangkok, Thailand, carrying with him the cure for my anemia - his presence. I am in need of a "blood" transfusion - a bit of the familiar and the familial.
I have attained Independence - excelled in it, in fact. After 13 months on the road, I don't think anyone can dispute my claim or my "success." However, if Covey is right, and I think he is, then my claim of "success" is as premature as the Prime Minister of Thailand's recent announcement that Thailand has "won" the war on drugs. I've finally realized that Independence is not the goal - it is a step in the process.
I still have a long way to go. Interdependence is a whole new ballgame and one I am not use to playing. It is being ok with not being able to do everything on your own. It is the realization that sometimes its better to have someone else do the job or make the call. It is learning from others as you learn from yourself.
My brother and I will travel together for two months - through Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, maybe even Myanmar. It will be a new way of traveling for me - of relinquishing control of all of the power, the decision making, the planning - of sharing the journey and moving forward as a team. I am looking forward to it.
Hurry up Twirpy - I miss you!
November 25, 2003
The Last Tourist In Thailand
At some point in their journeys, most travelers feel the urge to “get off the beaten path.”
In some this urge is little more than a vague notion – an unspoken item on their mental “to do” list before they return home. In others, this is a deep yearning – a badge of honor to demonstrate that they were more than a tourist in a place – that they had somehow transcended the surface layer of touristy activities and gotten in touch with the “real” (insert country here) and her “real” people.
For still others, this urge develops quietly and slowly, subconsciously, after one too many VIP bus trips in the exclusive company of other travelers. The realization that being taken, in air-conditioned comfort, from one guesthouse to an interesting site to another guesthouse, with the occasional roadside bathroom break, is not reality – in any part of the world.
In Alex Garland’s novel, “The Beach” a group of backpackers journey to a remote Thai island in search of this paradise utopia. Funny enough, this island utopia the travelers find is full of nothing but other travelers - not one local person in the bunch. And yet, in their minds, the journey is a success. This tale exemplifies what I believe many travelers want when they say they want to get “off the beaten path.”
What they really mean is they want a place that is still new enough to tourism that the people are friendly and unaffected – but also manage to speak a little English. They want a place that lacks Internet, but still has electricity and maybe hot water. They want a few cheap guesthouses and restaurants, some local brew, and an eclectic mix of travelers with whom to spend long nights discussing the world’s problems. Oh, and ideally it should be a picturesque village near a nice mountain or beach, if you don’t mind.
Truly being off the beaten path is HARD. It is being in a place where no one else looks like you – no one. It is the realization that all communication must be done with gestures and the odd word picked up from a phrasebook – and even then there will be misunderstanding. It means regularly ordering one thing and getting something else – but not having any idea how to rectify the matter. It means not having anyone to talk – unless YOU learn the local language.
I have never really been off the beaten path. Sure, I’ve been to places that are less frequented by tourists – places that felt remote and exotic. But even so, there was always another traveler or two or ten to ease the burden of communication – someone you could turn to and wink and say, “what the hell do you suppose that meant?” and laugh as you both realize you have no clue.
Only once have I experienced an inkling of what it must be like to get off the beaten path – and in the most unlikely of places. The funny thing is, I wasn’t even looking for it. I just needed a 30-day visa for Laos and was going to the closest place I could find it – Khon Kaen, Thailand.
Khon Kaen, located in the northeastern part of Thailand, is a modern Thai city – the fourth largest in the country, to be exact. There is the expected traffic and tall buildings, shopping malls and hotels, movie theatres and Internet access. Not at all what one might picture when thinking of an “off the beaten path” local.
But, Khon Kaen, though large and modern, does not have the usual requirements to make it an international tourist destination. There are no special monuments or sacred temples, no nearby hill tribes, no beaches, and no mountains. It is basically Indianapolis, Indiana. A nice place to live and grow up, but for people from other countries, it wouldn’t exactly make the Top 10 list. As such, there is no need to cater to an international audience.
Walking around Khon Kaen was like being the last tourist in Thailand. For several days, I saw no other white people. My hotel was filled with Asian business travelers, there were no restaurants geared toward western foreigners, and asking for directions once I left the hotel lobby was a game of charades in which I was a deaf mute.
I spent a week in Khon Kaen, waiting for my visa. I ate dinner alone every night at the same street stand located outside a 7/11 convenience store, and ate breakfast every morning at the crowded restaurant across the street from my hotel. By the end of the day my brain hurt from trying to communicate, and my savior came in the form of satellite television in my room. Embarrassed as I am to admit this, I spent nearly every evening tucked away in my room watching HBO or STARS while munching on some exotic fruit I had purchased at the local fruit stand.
Faced with being somewhat off the beaten track, I suppose I failed. I should have made more of an effort to meet people, to talk to the locals. But where should I have gone?
Karaoke bars comprised the majority of nightlife around my hotel, and the intentions of a lone American girl crossing the threshold would have certainly been misunderstood. And, as I am not the type to go to a bar alone in a land where I speak the language, doing that in a place where I was not guaranteed of understanding was too scary of a proposition.
And, while I spent my days chatting with locals at food stands and in shops, there is only so much that you can say when you can only remember about 10 Thai phrases and have a hard time comprehending all but the most basic of answers.
My week taught me a lot about my own expectations of traveling – and what made it nice and comfortable and what made it hard and uncomfortable. Had I just had one other person with me in Khon Kaen, my experience there would have been much, much different. But then, I don’t think I would have learned nearly as much - about myself and about my needs as a traveler.
Getting off the beaten path is sometimes harder than it appears – and sometimes much easier. For those who think it requires an 8-hour ride in the back of a pick-up truck on dirt roads to some quaint, remote mountain village that some other traveler or a guide book has raved about, think again.
For those who really want to give it a try – here is my advice. Find a place in your guidebook that has nothing special for tourists. No pristine beaches, no hill tribe populations, no “fabulous” guesthouses, and no towering monuments of any kind. The kind of place described as “without much of anything to keep a visitor overnight” or “there is no reason to stay here more than a few hours.” Go there and stay for a while.
Then talk to me again about “getting off the beaten path.”
October 28, 2003
The Dark Side Of Volunteerism
Working without pay. Giving back to those less fortunate. A gesture of unselfish kindness. These are all things I associated with organized volunteerism. But, expectations and reality don't always speak the same language, as I would soon find out during a two-week work camp in northern Thailand.
I personally didn't have too much experience with volunteering and had always look admirably on those who did volunteer work - thinking that somehow those people were better than I - more kind, more benevolent, more altruistic. So, as part of my RTW adventure and in order to "better" myself, I knew I wanted to include volunteer work in my total experience - a way of giving something back to the countries in which I was luck enough to be traveling.
I found my work camp through Volunteers for Peace (www.vfp.org), a Web database of hundreds of volunteer camps around the world. I chose VFP because they were the least expensive of the options I found in my online research.
If you have a notion that international volunteerism is a cheap way to have a vacation - think again. Of all the dozens of organizations I found, all required that the volunteer PAY - anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars - often for as little as a week-long experience.
VFP seemed like a bargain at only $200 per two-week work camp, plus an additional "onsite fee" that varied with each local organization. The Web site stated that the $200 would be used to pay for my room and board during the experience. Fair enough, I thought - I wasn't out to make money on this experience - I just wanted to help.
I should come clean now and admit that my motivation for volunteering was not completely selfless. I knew that volunteering was a good way to meet people. I knew it would allow me to experience things I was curious about but would not normally get a chance to do. And, in some cases, I knew it would provide me with skills that might be beneficial once I returned to a working life. But, I also genuinely felt that my contribution, however small or limited, would also be helpful - and needed. That it would mean something to someone.
After much debate I chose the Chiang Rai camp - working with Akha hill tribe people to help promote and preserve their way of life. As I mentioned in my last column, the Akha are a minority group that live around the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). As a whole they are underprivileged and often exploited by the governments of the countries in which they reside. They are a people "without country" and gain what little money they possess through farming - usually rice and peanuts - though some also resort to opium.
I arrived at the work camp full of energy, optimism and ready to learn - about the Akha, about what they were like, what they needed and how I could help them. However, four days later I was still waiting - as were the rest of the short-term volunteers (two Americans, one Danish, one Dutch, and one Aussie).
First, the two long-term volunteers, trained (and I use that term loosely) by Greenway, knew less about the Akha people than I did - and my information was limited to what I had read in Lonely Planet and through a quick visit to the Hill Tribe Museum in Chiang Rai. Despite the fact that the work camp had been going on for nearly a year, there wasn't one book about the Akha people, their culture or their language anywhere in the house. The only "dictionary" was a photocopied one created by a previous long-term volunteer - even though at least one major guidebook company had a published Hill Tribe phrasebook.
Second, no one in the work camp spoke a word of Akha or a word of Thai. To say that made communication difficult is an understatement. Sure, you can get by on gestures and single vocabulary works for things like food, accommodation, and bus schedules while traveling - but when you are trying to understand and assist a people to grow into a changing and modernizing society - you need more than sign language and caveman speak.
Finally, the long-term volunteers had done little more than set up house and continue the previous volunteers commitment to teaching two weekly one-hour sessions of English at the local school. They had been in the village for three weeks and still neither of them knew the head man's name. They had almost no plan for keeping a steady stream of short-term volunteers busy and neither of them was jumping forward to be the leader - in fact they were backing away from it as much as possible. As one of them said on our first day: "This is your camp - you can do what you want - as little or as much. If you just want to make a vacation, that is ok too."
Excuse me? I thought I had signed up for a WORK camp? Where was the well that needed digging? Where was the house that needed building? Where was the road that needed paving? Where was the field that needed plowing?
Where was the NEED?
The truth was, there was no need - at least not one that a group of baby-faced volunteers with no real skill except good intentions could provide them - especially when no one spoke the same language. The villagers were fed, clothed, housed and appeared to be happy. Some were materialistically better off than others, but as a whole, the only real problem I saw was the tendency for the men to indulge a bit too much in some homebrew whiskey and leave a disproportionate amount of work to the women. Still, that was no reason to set up an ill-equipped work camp in a mostly contented village - especially when the money wasn't even going to the village.
Most of the other volunteers were as disillusioned as I, but we decided to move forward with the home stay portion of our experience - if for nothing else, to ensure that SOME of the extra money we had paid actually went to the families. You see, each of us had paid $150 dollars upon arrival. We were all under the assumption that the majority of the money would be used to somehow help the Akha people. After a lot of questioning, the money breakdown appeared to be as follows: $100 was sent to the Greenway office in Bangkok. The remaining $50 was used "for the camp" - to buy food and supplies - and to pay for the home stay. The home stay fee was $4 per person, per night. Which means a grand total of $8 per person went to the village - and only if you were lucky enough to host a foreigner. The long-term volunteers lacked detailed information about where the majority of our money was going - and suspicions were rising.
After the home stay, by all accounts amazing, all of us become a little protective of these kind, wonderful people we'd just gotten to know. By staying in their homes, we had broken down the barrier separating the volunteers from the villagers. Finding out that Greenway was planning to form a for-profit organization called "GreenStay" - which would offer these home stays to the average tourist - made all of us shudder. Why? Because if Greenway was successful, we knew exactly what the future would hold for this village. It had already happened to countless others.
We'd all read about and seen the tourist office advertisements for "AUTHENTIC HILL TRIBE EXPERIENCE - FOUR VILLAGES IN TWO DAYS!" They were all billed as authentic - but how authentic could it really be? I'd heard the stories about these camps - and that was one reason I had chosen this volunteers experience instead. I wanted no part of a voyeuristic camera-touting group photographing villagers while tribal women stood in front of their homes - now converted into storefronts - and children ran to visitors like they were movie stars, slapping a bracelet on their wrists and holding out their hands saying, "10 baht! 10 baht!" All led by a Thai guide that often offered up opium and weed like, not thinking of the future negative influence left on the children of the village.
Yet, what could we do? It was only a matter of time before the road to this village was paved and bus loads of tourists came into the village. During one brainstorming session I had proposed that Greenway could still help - by educating the people about what could happen if tourism became their only source of income. By showing them other Akha villages that were shells of what they once were. By convincing the village elders that maintaining their traditions, stories, handicrafts, and language were vital. And, that while limited tourism might be a good supplementary income for the village - that the fields still needed to be planted and harvested - because there was no guarantee that the tourism would last. But my idea died, with dozens of others that were equally good - because our hands were tied. We were two week volunteers brainstorming 52 week ideas.
The day before I left the camp (4 days ahead of schedule and not the first one to leave), I looked through the report book - a sort of diary of the volunteer experiences in the Akha village over the past year. There, in black and white on page one, stood these words: "The village doesn't appear to know why we are here or what we are doing." The date was nearly a year ago, and as I read those words I thought - hmmm, not much has changed. Further reading found that prior to Greenway's arrival, adventurous travelers had already found their way to the village and had paid to stay there - no middleman or English lessons required - somehow the villagers had managed without us. And, on page two was a list of the important villagers and their names - headman included.
Before I left the camp, one of the volunteers told me that this experience confirmed her belief that the only effective place to do volunteer work was within your home country. I left the camp disappointed, disillusioned, helpless - and thinking that she just might be right.
Postscript: It's been three weeks since I left the Akha village. Five of the six volunteers left early and wrote long emails to Greenway detailing their disappointment and frustration with the camp and inquiring about a breakdown of where our money was spent. To date, no one has heard from Greenway. VFP, on the other hand, was quick to respond to all of us, and even refunded 100% of our initial fee (a shock to everyone as refunds are almost non-existent). VFP has also suspended all volunteers to this particular camp (they had apparently received complaints before) and is questioning Greenway regarding the remaining camps run by the organization.
Most of my fellow volunteers are unsure if they will ever do organized international volunteer work again. The consensus upon leaving the camp was that we were far better off just showing up somewhere we thought we could help - a school, a hospital, an orphanage, a temple. In fact, less than a week later, our Aussie volunteer did just that. He's currently helping a grassroots AIDS organization in Chiang Mai deliver meals and help people affected by the disease - helping where help is needed.
As for me, the discussions held among the volunteers while in the camp - and the communication I have received from VFP - has opened my eyes to the reality of volunteer work - both good and bad. It has made me realize that there IS a place for international volunteerism - but you have to do your homework. From now on, I hope to approach my volunteer work like I approach finding a job - doing all the background necessary to ensure that I am getting involved with an organization I can stand behind - even if it is only for a few weeks.
October 21, 2003
The Akha Way
I probably ate dog. If so, I’m certain to have said it was delicious. Delicious was one of only about three Akha words that I had memorized and at my disposal. The other two were Good Morning/Good Afternoon/Good Evening ("Udutoma") and Thank you ("Gruhuma"). So, in an effort to keep the "conversation" going, I complimented all food served to me with a big smile and the same word – "Yoku!"
In order to better understand the "Akha Way," all short-term volunteers at the work camp I was participating in were sent to live with different Akha families in our little village – for two days and two nights. We were paired off with another volunteer and armed with little more than a photocopied Akha phrasebook - created by a previous long-term volunteer. We had a general understanding that we were going to help the families in the fields.
The work camp had not been at all what we had expected to that point, and there was much dissent in the ranks of volunteers. Some of the volunteers weren't even sure that they would go to the homestay. However, knowing that the families would be paid for hosting us made us feel a little better, and in an effort to really give it a chance, the six of us decided to go. None of us would regret it.
Upon arrival at our new home, Maria (the volunteer I was paired with) and i were taken out to the family's fields by the grandmother and seven-year old granddaughter. The journey took a full hour - a distance the family put in nearly every day. The mother was already there, and had been working for several hours. Instead of putting us to work, however, she indicated we were to sit down and rest under a bamboo and banana leaf covered shelter. The little girl kept us company, offering us sunflower seeds and making faces, until lunchtime. When the mother got back, we ate the lunch she prepared over an open fire and then, following the woman's gestures, started back toward the village.
We were just beginning to wonder if we were going to work at all, when we stopped. The mother began pulling huge clumps of peanut plants out of the ground and tossing them into a pile. Our job was to separate the peanuts from the roots and dirt and place them on a plastic sheet she had spread on the ground. The work was not hard, but it was hot and the sun kept creeping into the shaded spot where we were sitting.
After a couple of hours, we started back toward the village. The woman carried all the peanuts (a considerable amount), some corn, a machetee, and god knows what else in a basket on her back. We offered to help but were shooed away. She was not a tall or especially large woman, but built strong. I later found out she was only 27 years old.
Back home we showered (scooping water our of a large metal drum and pouring it over ourselves) and then sat down to eat our first family meal – grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, and two daughters (the 9 year old had returned from school). We were sitting on a woven mat on the wooden floor of the family’s house, around a small round bamboo "table" filled with small bowls of food. The only furniture in the house were two beds - one for the grandfather and one for the grandmother. There were no chairs, no dressers, no tables, nothing. Maria and I had been handed individual bowls filled with rice, along with a spoon and chopsticks. Looking around we saw the family take their chopsticks or spoon, pick up mouthfuls of food from the center bowls, and transfer it to their own bowl or directly to their mouth.
Meals were always rice based, with a lot of vegetables and usually only one or two small bowls that contained some kind of meat. Peanuts were a frequent addition. Our family, like most of the others in the village, were farmers and corn, peanuts and rice were the main crops. The Akha are frequently accused of growing opium, and while this may still be in the case in some villages, it was not in ours. The drug of choice seemed to be whiskey, and only the men participated.
After dinner the family asked us if we were ready for bed. Both of us were exhausted and agreed. We crawled under our mosquito nets and onto our mats. Once "tucked in" we realized it was only 8:30 p.m.! We both laughed - neither of us had been to bed that early since we were children. While we slept, the family stayed up, watching television and talking quietly. Our bedroom was also the living room, dining room, television room, as well as the family's sleeping quarters.
The light was turned on at 5 a.m., but the cocks crowing woke me up hours earlier - whoever said they crow with the sun was mistaken! While Maria turned over and tried to get back to sleep, I sat up and was immediately sighted by the two kids. The mom and the kids motioned for me to come with them, so grabbing my glasses and my shoes, I followed them out of the house and into the darkness outside. The littlest girl held my hand while the older one held a flashlight.
We walked a short distance to a neighbor’s house, where the women stood chatting in front of this huge tree stump. Upon closer inspection I saw that it was hollowed out inside and filled with a sticky white substance. One of the women was using a huge log to repeatedly pound the mixture in the tree stump – picture a giant mortar and pestle made of wood and you’ll get the idea.
I wanted to watch and to help but was ushered inside the home where the children and most of the men sat watching a color television with DVD player. On the television was what can only be described as hill tribe music/karaoke videos. A man dressed in various ethnic costumes would sing different songs while the words flashed at the bottom of the screen. At one point the father of my family said that the particular song we were listening to was Akha - though the man himself was not Akha. Apparently, this was a compilation of different hill tribes and the man was singing in a variety of languages.
After about 30 minutes, I wandered back outside, as the light was breaking and I was more curious about what the women were doing. The mother in our family had just finished her pounding and was using a thin bamboo "string" to scrape the sticky goo from the mortar. She piled it high on a bamboo tray lined with some kind of seeds or grain, and we walked back to the house. Looking back I saw another woman empty the contents of a pot into the tree trunk – hot rice – and start pounding.
Maria had just gotten up and sat with us as the grandmother took the sticky goo and made balls of it wrapped in grain. We were each given one and the kids started eating right away. Dipped in sugar it was delicious. The rest of the morning Maria and I followed the mother around the village, visiting sisters (she had several) and friends. We returned to the house for lunch, and were joined by several friends and family members – all women. After lunch, eaten on the front porch, we stayed, some women talking, some sleeping, some nursing their babies and some working on handicrafts.
At this point Maria asked if she could take a picture of the mother working on her handicrafts. She said yes. Up until now, I had not taken out my camera, for fear of further "westernizing" this village. However, after seeing the DVD player that morning, and noticing the satellite dish in another yard, I decided my little digital camera was not going to corrupt them more than they had already been "corrupted."
The fun began when I showed them the picture I had taken – immediately the little kids were enthralled and I could see that even the mother and grandmother were having fun looking at their pictures. I had not seen any pictures in the house, and wasn’t sure if the family even had photographs of themselves. At this point the grandmother offered to let us try on her traditional Akha clothing. Most of the villagers don’t wear the traditional clothes except on special occasions (we'd only see a few of the older women wearing them) so we were thrilled.
Ten minutes later Maria was dressed from head to waist in traditional Akha fashion and was posing for a picture. Then came my turn. Then the little kids wanted to try on their grandmother’s headdress. Then the mother asked if I would take her picture. Then the grandmother. The entire afternoon was spent playing dress up – but instead of dolls we were dressing up each other - even the neighbors took part. After each picture everyone would crowd around the camera to see what the pictures looked like – laughing and joking. I promised to send copies of the pictures back to them.
The next morning, after breakfast, we packed out bags to leave. The mother gave us each a bracelet and a necklace, and as we walked out the door, a hard boiled egg. We were perplexed by the egg but thanked her profusely for it.
Upon arrival back at the volunteer clubhouse, we excitedly exchanged stories with the other volunteers. All of us had wonderful homestay experiences – and all were completely varied - one couple had even gone to a village meeting. The homestay was a breath of fresh air for the group and we were all renewed with energy to try and turn the program around - actually DO something for our last week. Though we asked around, no one else received eggs, so Maria and I are still unsure if the gift was symbol or just "food for the road."
That weekend the volunteers took a trip to the city of Chiang Rai, and so I was able to get the pictures printed right away. We wanted to give them to the family in person, instead of mailing them later. The night before we left the village, Maria and I dropped by the house and gave them the pictures. For a good 10 minutes, we were invisible as the whole family crowded around the pictures, laughing and pointing. We said our goodbyes and as best as we could expressed that we were leaving. They asked if we were coming back and I told them as honestly as I could that I didn't know - but that I hoped so. Even though the volunteer experience was a bit of a disaster (more on that later) the homestay was easily the best part of the two weeks - and I truely hope that one day I would be able to come back and visit again.
October 14, 2003
American Citizenship And Other Dubious Distinctions**
The year was 1997 and I was on a bus bound for the town of San Agustin, Colombia. Sitting next to me was a young Colombian mother with the fattest baby I have ever seen. As the trip was 6 hours long on dirt roads, we had plenty of time to get acquainted. Her baby's name was Arnold - not your typical Latino name. "I named him after the American actor - Arnold Schwarzenegger," she said proudly.
The year is 2003 and I am sitting in an Internet cafe after 10 days in a remote hill tribe village in Thailand. The Danish girl next to me draws my attention to the headline of her country's newspaper. Though I can't read Danish, the photograph accompanying the story says more than enough. Arnold Schwarzenegger, regally staring ahead, with a Mona Lisa smile on his lips and the American flag flying proudly behind him.
I am not proud to be an American.
I am not saying this because the Terminator is the new governor of the state I called home for five years. I am not saying this to start a fight - though almost every other time I have made this statement an intensive debate has followed (in which I was the minority). I am saying this because it's true - and because I can.
The fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary defines "proud" as "feeling pleasurable satisfaction over an act, possession, quality, or relationship by which one measures one's stature or self-worth." I do not feel "pleasurable satisfaction" for my American citizenship - nor do I measure my self-worth or stature on the fact that I was lucky enough to be born in a country that is currently the most powerful country in the world.
The United States of America is arguably the only superpower left in the world. Its influence is spread far and wide - from McDonald's and KFC chains worldwide, to Betty Boop T-shirts in remote Akha villages. Despite the fact that I don’t usually follow the news in the United States while traveling, I am always informed of what is going on - usually from fellow travelers, all of them from nations other than the United States. Most of them are more aware and better educated on US foreign policy than my fellow Americans. I guess they have to be - they never know when it will affect them. Someone told me that the United States presidential elections are the only such elections in the world that are internationally broadcast (and viewed). I had no idea.
The United States gives millions of dollars in aid to poor African countries, pressures Asian countries to outlaw the cultivation of drug crops such as opium, and brokers Middle East peace agreements. We are first in line to give aid to warn-torn nations, and to criticize governments with records of human rights abuses.
The United States also holds hundreds of orphaned refugee children in detention centers, starts wars with smaller, weaker countries despite popular opinion and international pressure to the contrary, funds rebels groups one day (in the name of democracy) and says they are the "axis of evil" the next day (in the name of peace). We are the sole market for 50% of the heroin produced worldwide. We help overthrows governments for fear of Communism and bombs countries in "secret" wars - stories that never get included in newspapers, much less the history books.
God Bless America.
I know what you are saying. No country is perfect. What country doesn't have some skeletons in their closet? Sure, maybe the US does some bad things, but don’t the good things outweigh the bad ones? Corruption is far and wide in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe. Why single out the United States?
Because I can. Because I hold the United States up to a higher standard and I think others should as well. Because a country with so much power, and so much influence, has got to be BETTER. Has got to try HARDER. Because I was born there and I think we can do more. Know we can. And, if we don't set a higher standard - who will?
I admit that several months ago I read Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men." But all his book did was provide some facts and dates and figures for thoughts that have been running around in my head for a while now. His opinions and his views are clearly colored by his experiences, his past history and his current ideology - I have no illusion that he is trying to be unbiased. Still, I congratulate him for putting his ideas down - for saying his mind and giving us some facts to back up the opinion. And, for managing to get the book published.
Don't get me wrong. I count my blessings regularly that I was LUCKY enough to be born an American citizen. I can stand on any street corner and wax prophetic on any topic I like - from what really goes into a McDonald's hamburger to conspiracy theories about the bombings in NYC to the contents of George W. Bush's underwear drawer - without worry that someone is going to haul me off to jail or worse. I can groan audibly whenever anyone asks me if I voted for George W. Bush - and patiently explain, AGAIN, that in the United States it is possible for a man to receive less than the majority of votes and STILL manage to be President. A former roommate of mine can keep a gun under her bed - just in case. An ex-pat friend of mine can actively try to avoid returning to the United States - while still keeping his citizenship. Michael Moore can write a book that bashes the United States political system, highlighting corruption normally saved for Hollywood movies about third world nations - and make it to the best seller list. And, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former Mr. Universe, born in Austria to a father who may or may not have been a Nazi-sympathizer, can become the Governor of California, a state who's economy ranks 5th in the WORLD.
America is an amazing place. A place of miracles and slights of hand. A place where people can not vote, yet feel they have the right to complain at will about anything they don't like - even write books about it. Maybe you aren't proud that Arnold Schwarzenegger is now a political figure and running one of the largest states in the country. Maybe you aren't proud to be an American. But I don’t think anyone can challenge me when I say, you should consider yourself lucky to be born there. Somewhere, in a remote town in Colombia, a Colombian mother is proud of her decision to name her little boy Arnold - a name that, to her, stood for something special. Because maybe, just maybe - he will be as lucky as the big Arnold - and grow from immigrant roots to become an internationally known name - even if it is practically impossible to spell. Weirder things have happened.
As for the newly elected Governor Arnold, I say "congratulations" and "my condolences" in the same breath. He's got a tough job in front of him - and a tough electorate to answer to if he can't keep his promises. In truth though, I really can't imagine he will do much worse than anyone else. But, if you aren't in favor of his governorship, don't worry too much. Console yourself with this nugget. His political aspirations can't get any bigger. I believe the Constitution still states that only people born in the United States can grow up to be President. Someone might want to tell George W. I'm guessing he was beginning to sweat a bit about re-election.
September 30, 2003
Getting to Know the Locals
Writer's Note: Starting on Monday, I will be participating in a two-week volunteer program with an NGO (non-governmental organization or non-profit) in Thailand. I will be working with a minority hill tribe group called the Akha, whose origin is thought to be Tibetan or Mongolian and who, with other culturally unique hill tribe groups, have settled in the mountainous border areas of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Hence the early delivery of this week's "Spots of Time." I will do my best to send out next week's column (as a trip into town is scheduled for the weekend). However, for those of you tracking my columns as an indication of the safety of my being, please do not panic if the column does not appear. :) I should be back on track as of Tuesday, October 14, 2003, when I return to the town of Chiang Rai.
“So, do you know where the American Embassy is located?” said Surin, a local Thai man I met in Chiang Mai.
“No,” I said, thinking, hmmm, the restaurant we are going to must be nearby to it.
“What if I was a kidnapper?” he said casually.
“Very funny” I said, my voice light and teasing. “Are you a kidnapper?”
“So you don’t know the phone number of the American Embassy?” he insisted.
“No,” I said. “Are you telling me I should open the car door now and roll out onto the street?”
Though I was laughing, a part of me was thinking – wow – he is right. What if he is a kidnapper? I’d only met him a week earlier and now I was in his car on the way to a restaurant somewhere in the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Then I heard a familiar “click” sound – the sound of him automatically locking all the doors. My heard began to beat a little bit faster.
“Now what would you do?” he said.
People who travel always say they want to "get to know the locals" - to have an "authentic" experience. But, in reality, most travelers only get to know other travelers - especially in the backpacking circle. In truth, getting to know other travelers is a hell of a lot easier. Most travelers speak English, are from first world nations, young (or young at heart), and are similarly "fish out of water" - foreigners in a foreign land. Their presence means you have at least one thing in common – travel. That is usually enough to start off a conversation – one that might quickly lead to some kind of friendship.
Getting to know the locals is another story. Language barriers, cultural barriers, uncertainty of local traditions - all these things contribute to most travelers only chatting with tourist-oriented locals - taxi or tuk tuk drivers, guesthouse and restaurant owners, tour guides, etc. While these relationships can sometimes turn into friendships, for the most part they are business-oriented relationships at best.
Getting a big nervous but still MOSTLY sure he was kidding, I continued to laugh it off. “Well, I do have a piece of paper in my purse that say ‘Help! I’m being kidnapped!’ written in Thai,” I said jokingly.
“And pepper spray?” he asked?
“Oh sure – right here,” I said, patting my bag. I was still trying to speak lightly but noticed some tension creeping into my voice. Did I horribly misjudge Surin's overtures of friendship?
There was a pause and the car was silent. “You’re scaring me,” he said, his voice quite serious.
“You’re scaring ME,” I said too quickly, my voice unconsciously raising an octave.
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” Surin said, with noticeable worry in his voice. “I’m sorry, I didn't’t mean to scare you.”
We were silent for a minute. Both of us were unsure what to say next. Saving face is a huge issue in Thai culture and I didn't want to offend him. At the same time, I was a woman traveling alone in a country as foreign to me as the local's tradition of eating fried bugs as snacks - if I didn't take care of myself, who would?
“You know," I said hesitantly, "It’s just that humor is the hardest thing to convey – especially in another language. They say the true sign of fluency is being able to tease people in another language."
"Yes, yes, I know this," he said. "You must be so careful to not go too far. I hope I did not upset you - I was kidding only."
"Of course, no worries," I said, more confidently. "I just have to be careful you know. A woman traveling alone in a foreign culture - it is easy for misunderstandings to take place."
Surin and I met at the local market, around the corner from my guesthouse. The guesthouse, located on the other side of the river in Chiang Mai, is a bit off the beaten path - purely because of location. A good twenty-minute walk from the Tha Phae Gates, a central point in the city, my "neighborhood" is rarely visited by “farang” – the Thai word for “white foreigner.” Therefore, the local market is not at all tourist oriented. I first visited the market on the morning I arrived in Chiang Mai, following an overnight train from Bangkok. I liked the atmosphere - and the food - so I kept returning.
After only two mornings, I was a regular. The only farang in the market – day in and day out – made me a bit of an oddity, though everyone was really friendly. I think Surin and I met the second day. He was the only one who spoke English really well, though Visshit and Waa, the couple who ran the coffee counter, understood enough. We enjoyed chatting – me asking tons of questions about Thailand, and Surin excited to practice his English.
After a few days Surin asked me if I would go to lunch with him. I hesitated for a second, unsure what kind of invitation he was making. “As friends,” he said, quickly. “Ok,” I said, though still a big hesitant. It must have showed, as he then pulled out his wallet and said, “This is my wife and my son.” Looking at the picture a big wave of relief passed over me. I smiled at him and complimented the picture. “My wife is pregnant with our second child,” he said. All of a sudden, Surin wasn't just a random man I met at the market – he was a husband and a father. That afternoon, when we met for lunch, I brought my mini photo album - to show pictures of my family, my friends. I wanted to make sure he saw me as a whole person - a daughter and a sister - and not just a farang traveler.
“You know,” Surin said, once we had arrived at the restaurant and had ordered dinner, “I was so scared what you think when I ask you to lunch that first day."
“I wasn't sure what kind of invitation you were making either,” I admitted. “I wanted to go, but I have to be careful. It made me feel so much better when you showed me the picture of your wife and son. That helped me to understand that you wanted friendship and not more.”
‘That is why I showed you the picture,” he said. “I didn't want you to get the wrong idea.”
We smiled. Understanding was beginning to shed light on what had been a very formal and uncertain relationship.
"Friendship between cultures is a lot harder than most people think," I said. "And, I think that friendship between a man and a woman is even more difficult - there are so many things that can be misunderstood - especially in Thailand." I looked expectantly at him, hoping for understanding.
Thailand has a dark underbelly of prostitution - and pedophilia. It is very common to see foreign men walking around the streets with Thai women, often much younger than the men. Once or twice at the restaurant, I noticed a group of people looking at Surin and I - we were certainly an oddity. While it is very common to see foreign men with Thai women, it is very rare to see foreign women with Thai men. Since my arrival I had tried not to judge these situations by sight alone (in some cases the relationships are legitimate). And, as I could only imagine what our friendship looked like to outsiders, my relationship with Surin helped me to be even less judgmental. That said, I will admit that in most situations I have witnessed, the relationships between Thai women and foreign men appear (at least to me) to be fueled by a monetary flame, not a romantic one.
"This is very true," he said. "That is why I try very hard... (and here he thought for a minute) ...not to cross the line."
"And you haven't," I said quickly. "Even though it is hard, I think it is important to trust people. I think people want to trust people, but most are too afraid and so protect themselves by not opening themselves up to opportunities for friendship." I paused and smiled, "Like this one."
"But you must be careful - not everyone is good - even here in Thailand," he said. "Even monks. Just like anywhere, there are good people and bad people."
Surin's concern for me was touching, but slightly ironic. Our conversation, this dinner, our friendship - wouldn't be possible if I had not decided to open myself up to trusting him. And here he was warning me against doing it again. Still, a new father with a wife only a few years older than I, his concern was understandable. Part of our dinner conversation that night involved him expressing how his life had been changed with the birth of his son. Where all of a sudden he knew what it was to be willing to put his life on the line for someone. I thought silently to my dad and his constant worry and concern about his only daughter undertaking a solo around the world trip. My dad had told me many times that I wouldn't understand his worry until I had children of my own. I mentioned this thought to Surin and he agreed. Apparently his mother had told him the same thing - and only now did he really get it.
We shook hands that night when he dropped me off at my guesthouse. It was my instinct to give him a hug goodbye - what I would have done had I spent a similar evening with another traveler I'd gotten to know. However, I resisted. The evening's conversation had broken down a lot of of the walls of misunderstanding. But, maybe not all of them. The rest of them would take a little more time. Which was ok by me. Some of the best lessons are learned slowly, through trial and error.
You know, like baby steps.
September 23, 2003
The Kingdom Of Thailand
You are now in Bangkok, Thailand. 15 degree, 00' North, 100 degrees, 00' East
If you fly along this Latitude in an easterly direction, you will look down on Manila, Philippines; Guam; Guatemala City, Guatemala; Tegucigalpa, Honduras; Dominica; Dakar, Senegal; Niamey, Niger; Khartoum, Sudan; Asmara, Eritrea; Sanaa, Yemen; Madras, India; Bangkok.
If you fly along this Longitude starting north, you will look down on Dali, China; Bayanhongor, Mongolia; Bratsk, Russia; North Pole; Padang, Indonesia; Bangkok.
Tuesday, September 23, 2003
His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the leader of the Kingdom of Thailand, is either a very, very good husband, or a very, very bad husband. There is no other way to explain the countless photographs of his wife, Queen Sirikit, which cover Thailand like rainbow flags during Gay Pride in San Francisco.
When I first arrived in Thailand, I was immediately struck by the enormous larger-than-life images of Queen Sirikit, dozens of which lined the street on either side of the Democracy Monument in Bangkok. After a few more days I noticed that her image could be found EVERYWHERE. Hence my theory. If the King is a bad husband, I imagine that each one of these is an "I'm sorry, honey" - done extravagantly, as only royalty can do. If, on the other hand, he is a good husband, then each one of these images is a tribute to his wife - and every woman in his kingdom. How can any Thai woman, young or old, look upon these pictures and think anything but good thoughts of the King?
His Majesty King Bhumibol is the world's longest-reigning living monarch. Born in 1927, in the United States, where his father was studying at Harvard University, the King has been ruling Thailand for over 50 years. Known as Rama IX, King Bhumibol is the ninth ruler in the Chakri dynasty. He is currently 76 years old and said to be in failing health - though no one talks about such things in public. In fact, the average visitor to Thailand might guess the King to be a fit man in his 40s - I know I did. It wasn't entirely my fault. Every photograph I saw of him in my first two weeks in Thailand (and there were many, many photographs) showed a man in the prime of his life.
To give you an idea of the King's popularity, prior to the screening of every movie in Thailand, the entire audience is asked to "stand and pay your respects to the King." The entire audience stands and an instrumental version of the Thai national anthem is played with an assortment of floating circular photographs of the king touring the country, superimposed in front of a lush green Thai landscape. It's actually very touching - propaganda sure, but very well done propaganda. The final picture shows a more mature image of the King - closer to what I presume he looks like now, in his late 70s.
A constitutional monarchy, Thailand is "ruled" by the King, but true governmental power resides with the Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was popularly elected a few years ago (voting is compulsory in Thailand). That said, saying the King is nothing more than a figure head in Thailand doesn't seem to be an accurate assessment. The people seem to truly love and respect their monarch, and there are many examples of the King helping to "sway" legislation through his endorsement of matters.
Americans (myself included) have long been fascinated with royalty - probably because we don't have our own with which to gossip and obsess. Princess Diana was particularly popular in America, and I vividly remember where I was when I heard that she had died. Though I once traveled to the United Kingdom, complete with visit to Buckingham Palace and a tour of the Crown Jewels, my arrival to Thailand had me much more obsessed with the concept of a "kingdom." And I would be lying if I said "The King and I" didn't play a role. The first time I watched that movie I developed a romantic notion of what a kingdom was like in the eastern world - royalty riding on elephants, colorfully dressed women and exotic tropical surroundings.
Much of what Americans know about royalty in Thailand is rooted in an exaggerated story about Rama IV, known to the Western world as King Mongkut, that has found its way into popular American culture in the form of the musical and several movies, most recently "Anna and the King." Based on a book written by Anna Leonowens, who was brought to Thailand as an English teacher, the book exaggerates Leonowens's role in the court, her relationship with the king and her influence on social reform in Thailand. In fact, the film "The King and I" so enraged Thai people that it was banned in Thailand.
It is true that many social reforms and changes took place in Thailand (then Siam) around the time of King Mongkut, but most especially during the the reign of his son, Rama V. Rama V enjoys a popular following in Thailand, like that of Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill, for his contributions to the country. Educated by European tutors, he is credited with fending off colonization - a major feat during that time period. Thailand is the only country in South East Asia that was not colonized by European powers. He abolished slavery and was the first of the Thai Kings to travel to Europe. While it is said that more land was lost during his reign than of any other monarch, it can also be said that by giving away the minor interests he was able to preserve the major ones - the core of Thailand.
My Thai friend Surin told me that Rama V was the monarch who first introduced eating utensils to Thailand - previously Thai people ate most all food with their hands. The story goes that after eating an elaborate formal meal in Europe, the King determined that of all the dozens of utensils used, only one fork and one spoon were really useful and necessary. To this day, with the exception of noodles (with which they use chopsticks) and sticky rice (with which they still use their hands) most urban Thai's eat their meals with a spoon and a fork - spearing and moving the food with the fork, but eating out of the spoon.
Writer's Note: Much of the above historical data on Thailand comes from my Lonely Planet guidebook for Thailand - whose reputation is excellent but which, like most sources of information, is not completely infallible. Sure Lonely Planet can tell me that modern Thailand, slightly smaller than Texas or about the size of France, is a country of 62 million people, 95% of which are Buddhist. That Thailand offers all of its citizens free education until the age of twelve years old and has the highest literacy rate of all of South East Asia. I won't argue with that. But, the story of King Mongkut and Anna Leonowens reminds me that there are two sides to every story - and that I must be careful what information on Thailand I accept and which information I reject - be that from books, expats, Thais or other travelers. While gathering information is good, I also need to keep my eyes open and judge for myself. As a monk told me during my recent medidation course, "Don't just listen to what I say and take it to be true - do your own research and determine if this is right - if this works for you."
Wise words - pass it on.
September 16, 2003
The Ice Factory
"Are you ok?" the man said. I turned my head away from the airplane window and looked up at him with scared eyes about to say, "actually no, I'm not ok," when I realized he was talking to his three year old son, who was coughing and saying he was feeling sick. I turned back to the window as the dad handed him an airsickness bag. "I know the feeling kid," I wanted to say, staring helplessly at my own airsickness bag. Outside my rain streaked window I saw my first glimpse of "The Kingdom of Thailand" and I was scared.
This was unlike me. I should have been excited. I should have been jumping up and down in my seat, regardless of the stormy weather. The Kingdom of Thailand was opening its doors to me and all I wanted to do was turn around and go back.
I know it sounds insane, but my single biggest fear of traveling is not losing my passport, a break out of civil war, weird food, strange customs, acts of terrorism, or road accidents - it is not being understood. It is not being able to ask directions, order food, or get myself out of a mess. It is opening my mouth and speaking to someone who comprehends my words as little more than gibberish - grown-up baby talk - that might sound cute but has no real meaning to them and no real communication value.
Though my past travels have taken me to four separate continents, I always knew the language of the country in which I was traveling. Spanish took care of me in Spain, Mexico and South America, English took care of me in the UK, Canada and Australia, and Serbo-Croatian took care of me in the former Yugoslavia. Singapore, being a former British colony, still had English as one of the four official languages. Suddenly I was in Thailand, a place that has never been colonized for any length of time, a place where people spoke Thai - a language I wasn't sure I'd ever heard before, much less had any chance of speaking or communicating with to anyone.
I knew I was being irrational. I'd met numerous travelers in South American who spoke little or no Spanish when they arrived, and had traveled successfully for months. I'd met travelers in Australia who could hardly speak English and still they managed to obtain rooms, order food, book tours, and generally have a good time. I was one of the lucky ones - I already spoke English, the unofficial language of the international traveler. Logically, I realized I would be fine. Yet none of that helped to quiet my mind from the plethora of "what if" situations that I could get into because I didn't speak the native language.
My salvation came in the form of a young Italian man named Giacomo. Sitting a few tables away from me at my guesthouse, the Wild Orchid Inn, he was reading a book when I practically accosted him by sitting down and announcing that-it-was-my-first-time-in-Asia-and-that-I-was-freaked-out-and-driving-myself-mad-writing-in-my-journal-and-I-didn't-speak-Thai-and-wasn't-sure-if-I-was-going-to-be-ok-and-would-he-mind-if-I-joined-him-for-a-while-because-I-really-needed-to-talk-to-another-human-being? He was laughing as I sat down, but I didn't care, as he was smiling while he laughed and had clearly understood everything I'd just said.
Giacomo and I talked for hours - about Thailand and travel, about his work as a freelance photographer, his travels to Asia (one or two trips every year for the past seven years), and my insecurities about not being able to communicate with people because of language. When he told me about his first experience traveling in hill tribe villages without a guide, I asked him how he communicated his needs. He mimed putting something into his mouth - "food" - and then mimed falling asleep - "bed." Right. It was that simple - yet I was trying to make it into something complicated.
His easy going attitude, his kind smile and his confirmed experience comforted me, but the single best thing he did for me that night - what I will always remember - is our visit to the ice factory.
Just a few blocks from the techno beat and neon lights of backpacker activity on Ko San Road, in a place where the river and the canal meet in the old part of the city, stands a building dedicated to making ice. Here tubes of ice and blocks of ice are made for the city, and groups of mainly teenage boys work in the cooler evening hours loading the ice into bags, sliding coffee table-sized blocks of ice into a cold room, and making deliveries on their motorbikes.
Giacomo and I walked to the ice factory and I watched as he walked right up to the boys and wandered around their workspace, checking out what they were doing, joking with them about the bags of ice and their weight, and walking straight into the cold room to have a look around. Before I knew what was happening, I was helping to unload bags of ice and posing for pictures, commenting how strong the boys were and how heavy the bags of ice were, standing inside the enormous cold room while slabs of ice came sliding down a ramp from the truck that had just delivered them, slamming into the back wall and then being perfectly stacked with the others. The boys did not speak English and I did not speak Thai. But we understood each other perfectly, and they laughed as I showed them the pictures and we all smiled and waved as we walked back to the guesthouse.
Giacomo calmed the panic inside of me and opened a door into the ease of communication - from that one conversation and that one trip to the ice factory. He made me realize there was nothing to fear from Asia, language barrier or not. He made me remember something I had been taught years earlier - that non-verbal communication was 90% of all communication - and now I had the chance to not only test the theory, but to put it into practice. Because not only did I not speak Thai, but I didn't speak Lao or Vietnamese or Burmese or Khmer - the official languages of the other countries I planned to visit while in South-East Asia.
Giacomo's last night in Bangkok was my first, and our meeting completed a traveler's circle - a circle of beginnings and endings, of starts and finishes - a revolving door of comings and goings. Two paths colliding - one leaving, full of bittersweet memories and confident experience, the other arriving, an empty slate ready to be bombarded with a new world of adventures and unknowns.
It is too soon for me to think about the end of my circle of Asia, but when it comes, I am sure that there will be someone ready to take my place - naive and eager, excited and scared, and ready to pass through the revolving door, with little more than a guidebook and some advice from a veteran on their way to somewhere new.
Next week: The Kingdom of Thailand